Every day, criminals are finding new ways to take over computers in homes and businesses. They're even selling each other software designed to make it easier to break into computer systems, attack Internet servers, and use email to fool people into schemes that steal their money and personal information.
Fortunately, there are material things you can do today to help protect yourself from cyber crime. And many of them won't cost you a dime.
- Make sure your computer's operating system is up-to-date. Make sure that you've installed all of the "service packs" and "security updates" for your computer's operating system. These patches are available free for Windows and Mac OS.
- Update your Web browser. If you're running an older web browser, such as Internet Explorer 6, you're leaving yourself open to a host of potential hazards while browsing the Web. Upgrade to Internet Explorer 8, or use a browser like Firefox, Apple's Safari, or Google Chrome. These browsers will alert you when new versions are available.
- Check for security updates and other patches for your other software. Adobe Acrobat and Flash and Microsoft Office, for example, are frequently targeted by hackers, and both have had numerous security updates. Make sure you check at least monthly for security patches for the software you have on your computer.
- Install antivirus software that checks your e-mail. A lot of attempts to break into your computer still start with computer "viruses" and other malignant software—called "malware" by security experts—that arrive in your e-mail disguised as something else. There are many free or inexpensive antivirus software packages on the market that you can download off the Web. Set the software to delete malicious files, or "quarantine" them in a folder so that they won't be activated.
- Run full scans of your computer with your antivirus software daily—or at least weekly. Malware can easily sneak in on files from a USB drive, get downloaded off the Web accidentally, or sometimes even on software installation disks, so it's important to continuously check your system to keep it clean.
- Use your operating system's "firewall" software. Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Mac OS X all have built-in firewall software that can prevent outside attacks from the Internet from getting into your computer, and prevent any malicious programs that have managed to get onto your computer from opening doors that let hackers in.
- Run anti-spyware weekly. As you surf the web, some sites may try to install components that record where you go as well as other information. Software like Spyware Doctor can protect your privacy and prevent hackers from planting "keyloggers" and other hidden software that captures passwords, opens back doors to your computer, or steals data.
- Turn on your browser's "pop-up blocker." Some sites have ads that trigger "pop-ups"—new browser windows that open up either over or under your active browser window. They're often annoying, and occasionally they're malicious—ad networks sometimes get infected with ads that have software in them designed to attack your computer. You can set your pop-up blocker to allow new windows to open when you give permission, or allow them for sites that you trust. But you should always block them by default.
- Set up a spam filter for your email. Most mail clients have the ability to check for "spam", unsolicited email that often tries to get you to go to fraudulent websites or carries malware. Your e-mail provider may also offer spam filtering. Regularly check what gets caught in the spam filter, and keep marking messages that are suspicious or unwanted as spam to "train" your mail software on what is and isn't spam, rather than just deleting it.
- Be a skeptic. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Many cybercrime approaches depend on using what experts call "social engineering" — fooling the user into giving up information or installing something on their computer. For example, federal agents recently arrested a cybercriminal who had fooled people into using "free" tax return software online that stole their personal information and redirected refund checks to a bank in Belarus. He used e-mail offers to lure in his victims. The best protection you have from schemes like this is to be constantly skeptical of offers you find online—check them out before you do anything, and alert authorities if you think something's not right.